Partnering improved highway design and behavior interventions for increased safety

By Mary Ebeling

After a spike in traffic deaths in the first half of 2015, USDOT and NHTSA have offered a response that fast tracks the development of safety technologies and strives to improve driver behaviors. However, it is silent on roadway design. These familiar strategies could help decrease traffic fatalities and crashes, and they bring renewed attention to the degree to which human behavior is responsible for crashes. Consideration of the impact of roadway design and its influence on driver behavior leading to traffic deaths should be a key component in any effort to improve traffic safety.

The idea of roadway design affecting safety isn’t new, but past focus on “forgiving” design, to keep people from driving off a road while maintaining a high speed of travel, is being recognized as inappropriate for more heavily populated, urbanized areas. Numerous studies and reports have documented the link between traffic crashes, wide lanes, and higher speed limits. Road design that signals to motorists they are entering a more populated environment essentially “flips the script”—incorporating speed management elements like narrow lanes, curb bump outs, and other features in a context sensitive manner—and is shown to improve safety. Some DOTs are working to address the need to focus on design engineering solutions. The Florida DOT District One Secretary is leading an effort to improve roadway safety through design, seeking engineering solutions rather than relying primarily on education and enforcement.

The just-signed federal transportation bill, FAST, contains provisions that will help improve safety through design. The new law empowers local and regional governments to use street design guides, such as the NACTO guide, to build projects that respond to the desire to incorporate traffic calming and safety elements into local streets.

NHTSA has announced a series of regional meetings to discuss ways to address the behavior that may be pushing up the traffic fatality numbers. Developing approaches for incorporating improvements to roadway design as part of NHTSA’s effort holds promise for measureable reductions in crash rates, even in the face of increased traffic.

Mary Ebeling is a Transportation Policy Analyst at SSTI.